Welcome back to another SASS EDIT! This one is incredibly important to us here at EARSASS as mental health and suicide awareness is something we are extremely passionate about. But everyone needs to read this because it affects every single one of us in some way, shape or form. May is Mental Health Awareness month (fun fact - did you know this was first begun in 1949 by Mental Health America?) and I was honoured to talk to Simon Trower who founded Brave Mind charity in 2020. He tells us more about the incredible work Brave Mind are doing with young people to break down barriers, overcome the stigma of mental health conditions and champion mental wellbeing within the rugby community. Brave Mind is our chosen charity to support through the sales of our iconic ‘Issy Star’ earring honouring the legacy of Sophie’s cousin Issy who took her own life last year at the age of 17 and was herself a talented rugby player and coach. We want to show you how your generosity and overwhelming support has helped to change the lives of young people through Simon’s incredible work at Brave Mind and why it’s so important to keep this conversation going. Cuppa and comfy seat required!

What inspired you to create Brave Mind?

I was brought up in a rugby household from the age of 6 years old. Mum and dad were heavily involved in the rugby club, my brother played, my sister was there and all I wanted to do was play rugby. That was my life basically until the age of 25 when I had to retire due to a back injury - which I didn’t take particularly well. Going back to my childhood I was a very ‘nervy’ boy and was diagnosed with depression and anxiety in my late teens. So it was something that I struggled with probably all of my life and I didn’t really realise because things were very different back then with regards to mental health. It wasn’t really talked about and I was always called a ‘nervy’ boy and rugby was definitely a therapy for me - it was a release - I could just forget about things at home, at school and just play rugby for 80 minutes and I think when that was taken away from me I really struggled. Plus rugby historically, I was brought up in a time when playing it you would never show your emotions or any weakness or anything like that, you just didn’t talk about it and it was quite a kind of male masculine dominated environment to grow up in. So I guess there’s two areas to Brave Mind which is my love of rugby and to learn more about my mental health journey. 2019 was quite a pivotal year - I lost a close friend to suicide, I’d started coaching again so I went back into Rugby. I’d been away from it for a very long time and I missed it so I started coaching and met a young lad who joined pre-season who was extremely open about his mental health and it really resonated with me, really inspired me to help him on his journey to get back playing again and help him with his anxiety. What I did was just show vulnerability and talked about my own story and that was a big thing for me that I really enjoyed. In 2020 covid happened and the big thing for me was to look after my own mental health and also my family’s and that’s how it started really. It was just a case of I got to a point in my life - early 40’s - where I was ok with it, I just wanted to tell my story and if that helps somebody then that’s great and it was a huge weight off my shoulders. 

Tell us about the work Brave Mind is doing with young people?

Over the past year we’ve done a lot of work with young people predominantly aged between 16 and 25. I think the 6th form college and university area we’ve had a lot of engagement from young people coming to us and asking for help and it just goes to show the impact that covid has had on these young people and they’re really open to learning more about this space. We’re using rugby as a vehicle to engage with these young people but they’ve really been struggling with anxiety and just managing their stress and I think that’s something that we’ve really helped young people with over the past year and will continue to do so.

How will the money donated from the sales of the ‘Issy Star’ (£15k and counting!) help support Brave Mind?

Massively. It’s been such an overwhelming experience. Obviously tragically Issy took her own life and what’s happened from there, people wanting to help and to help prevent this from happening. It’s that prevention element which is so so important and the money that’s being raised is going into supporting those people - in sixth form colleges, in schools, in universities for us to go in and start talking about these things. We’re normalising the conversation and saying “look, it’s ok not to be ok” and I think they often want to talk amongst themselves, it’s not necessarily signposting to help, I think they know where that is. It’s just a case of they want to talk to their peers and other people about how they’re feeling and it just to be normalised and the money raised is helping us reach those people and just doing as much as we can in that space.

It can be extremely difficult to talk about suicide especially with people who you know. Do you have any advice for people who may be feeling suicidal but are not sure how to reach out to others for support?

The big message from me is that you’re not alone. I know that’s easy for me to say but you aren’t. There’s so many people out there experiencing similar things and there’s always someone to talk to, people are there to listen, to help you think more clearly and just to help enable you to take the next step really to feeling better - you’ve got to feel calm and you’ve got to feel safe. But the overriding message from me is you’re not alone and people are there. 

What’s the most important thing we can do if a family member or friend tells us they are struggling or having suicidal thoughts?

I’m not an expert in this field, I’m just somebody who wants to help and is telling their story so you would need to go and see a specialist in this space. But for me the main aspect of supporting someone is being compassionate. Listening is really really important and that’s something that I’ve really learned over the last couple of years. Not overreacting, becoming upset with them, it’s just about remaining calm and talking through the situation because obviously being judged and being a burden on people goes through your mind. But you just want somebody to listen to you. I've been there, I’ve had suicidal ideation and not wanting to be here anymore, but you need someone to listen to you and get those thoughts out and make a plan to move forward in a safe way. 

How did it feel to have HRH The Princess of Wales choose to support Brave Mind on World Mental Health Day by wearing the ‘Issy Star’ earring?

Incredible. It was an incredible experience to meet HRH, just one of those ‘weird’ days! And then to see her wear the ‘Issy Star’ it was huge for me, from a Brave Mind perspective…I can’t imagine how Issy’s mum Sarah and Sophie and so many people felt - just wow. For her to wear them on that day - it was so amazing of her to do that and I’ll always remember it. It just goes to show that she’s compassionate and she wants to help as much as she can. 

Being the founder of Brave Mind must be an incredibly emotive role. How do you personally ensure you’re taking time to look after your own mental health?

It’s so hard, it’s so so hard. I could lie and say “oh yeah I’m fine- practice what you preach” but it’s been an incredibly challenging time for me. I’ve had 2 burnouts over the past year, I see a therapist myself, and take medication. I’ve been on medication since I was 19 years old but it’s extremely difficult. I’ve put myself out there, there’s a lot of people that need help and there’s a lot of people that I speak to and like all GP’s or anyone like that you need to be supervised and I definitely need to be supervised and set my boundaries. It’s been a huge learning curve for me over the years to learn boundary setting and looking after myself by monitoring telephone and computer usage. Taking time out and being present is a massive one, being present for my family and my wife and I’m still on a learning curve and a learning journey. I know that I need to talk to people, I need to stay active, I need sleep and get the right nutrition, all of those things that are so important for your mental health.

Do you think suicide and mental health conditions are becoming less of a taboo subject?

Yes and no. I think covid probably bumped it up the priority list. We’ve still got a massive issue in society, not just within rugby but everywhere. That stigma towards mental health, suicide, medication is still there. I feel that we’re part of a larger movement, there’s some charities doing amazing things in this space and we’re just a small part of that to help. But I still think it’s there and you can see the suicide rates are increasing. So yeah, while we’re talking about it we still need to start this conversation at an earlier age, show people that it’s just a normal thing - we’ve all got physical health and we’ve all got mental health. We’re all on a spectrum of mental health disorder to thriving, we all go along that scale. But we just need to take all these barriers down and be kind, listen, show empathy, compassion and support one another.

Who is your biggest inspiration?

This is a difficult one. Who inspires me? I think the people that inspire me are people like Sarah (Issy’s mum) that through the face of tragedy they’re trying to do something positive. And Sophie - and I’m not just saying that. I went to a recent event and there were so many people affected by suicide there, that were vulnerable and sharing their stories of loved ones, friends that they’d lost but they’re all trying to do something positive to prevent it not happening again to somebody. That inspires me because I just can’t imagine what they have gone through, what they go through every day, every minute. I think when something happens and it’s absolutely awful, time moves on but it will never be the same for those people - Christmas's, their birthdays. It will never be the same and for them to sit up, to stand up and do something positive whilst grieving is amazing, they’re very, very strong people. 

Thank you so much to Simon for being my guest on THE SASS EDIT and helping us all #kickofftheconversation. Let’s keep it going.  

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